Dr. Elsa Lycias Joel & Dr. Daniel Devaprasath Jeyasekharan
Malls, branded shops, factory outlets, supermarkets, one-stop shops, on-demand smartphone apps and the like put up their shutters. Now, the convenience stores that have almost been turfed out by big names and periodically went out of business are once again making a go of themselves, lively and vigorous. Does it give people a cut off from the rest of the world feel! No, not to many. Once a colourful and vibrant hallmark of typical rural and suburban life, these corner stores did not shut up overnight. But a combination of factors over decades led to the transition from departmental stores to novel atmospheres, big and colorful, where we also hear foreign words that are exotic brands. Known to all, convenience store owners could not fend of competition from big business that changed consumer habits. Nothing wrong with opting for comfortable brands till we know how much is enough. Can anything alter the statement our outfit makes!
The self- described minimalist in me prevents me to often go farther from home that requires a car travel to purchase anything that I can find at the store round the corner. Love affairs with local stores never end because they were more than just selling and buying. Yes, they were social by nature. People knew the shopkeepers, and vice versa. People visiting the stores fondly addressed the keeper as ‘annachi’, greeted each other by name, exchanged gossip and we always got totally oriented as to what was happening in the entire neighbourhood or town. Regulars even purchased on credit. Many came just to pick up a copy of the daily newspaper. While growing up many of us would have experienced that first taste of independence in walking or riding our cycles to the local shop, often with a family member or a pet in tow. Mostly, shopping meant picking up a few items for parents as well as the obligatory coconut candy, lollipop, a Cadbury or something that’s denied to us. Parents and grandparents could also ring in just before closing time to buy something forgotten during the whole day and take away a cordial word or smile in return in addition to an essential. Walking up to Warrens, an ice cream parlour on a Saturday with peeps to hang out for hours and hours, before social media and before phones is such a vivid hometown memory I cherish.
With too many changes being forced on us, the humble corner store is having a revival of sorts much to my delight. Since COVID 19 has stopped people from looking for more than just essentials, all seek a peaceful, safe and quiet shopping in departmental stores which exists as a ‘social-glue’ amidst social-distancing. Unlike olden days, the shop keeper doesn’t know shoppers’ preferences or have prepared any purchase in advance to be readily delivered. What confuses the young shoppers is that they can’t shop in the middle of the grocery store and they are willing to pay for fresh products on the outside of the store like greens and fruits. Groceries from any corner store is also meant to sustain proper social relations and the present generation is getting the first taste of it. Fast- food outlets being forced to close, humans seem willing to pay for food that is good. Where is the hankering for burgers and fries! Even though annachis strive to bring back their smiles and meet the demands of a new kind of local customer by providing a friendly shopping experience, the atmosphere as we all know is tinged with fear. Social distancing is paramount and so is the willingness to share and listen personal stories of loss and gain. In addition to rebuilding a sense of community and trust, these shops foster social engagement and encourage people to fix both literal and figurative holes in neighbourhoods. Today, a typical scene outside a local store is a few people around, six feet apart recognising neighbours, discussing the relative absence of intimate personal acquaintances, regretting the segmentalisation of human relations which are superficial and transitory and most of all extending invites for tea once the pandemic disappears as they pick up essentials. Not just about COVID19, people love stories of all kinds. A grocery store owner I know tells stories to receptive customers of how veggies, fruits and packeted stuff goes through all many stages until it finally gets to his shop. Handing out fresh butter wrapped in banana leaves, the store keeper has a standard story for all, of the grass-fed cattle. Who wouldn’t want to know about their quality foods!
Festivities reinforced the bond between annachi and regular customers by supplemental, reciprocal exchanges. I never know what faith that ever smiling annachi of my village belonged to for he received every good thing from anybody with ultimate happiness. Even on other days, unenthusiastically did I pedal my way to hand over a bottle of homemade jam or a tiffin box of meat made from goat slaughtered in our backyard forgetting that in return I’ll get my favourite coconut candies wrapped in old newspapers. As a kid, lessons on unity in diversity I appreciated in all its beauty. Acts of neighbourliness around and about the store never always centered on selling or exchange of material products but with acts of dignity, love and concern too.
The old shoe shop with a cobbler in his small tent beside, barrows with fresh produce, the road-side tailor, flower vendors and the small cloth shop with clothes hanging outside force us to introspect on the simple bare necessities of life against the extravaganza, greed and obsession for brands. Sigh! Neither should we shun global brands nor be all-consuming of the same. A walk around our oh-so-quiet, desolated well-established neighbourhood evokes nostalgia. We find closed, petty shops rusting away and buildings that were once chai and vadai points that proudly served communities, being converted to cafes. We remember how chai walas whose conventional day started before the dawn executed their craftsmanship of brewing a tea defying all laws of gravity, don’t we? Just as the grocery store keepers, the chai walas knew the demands of any regular patron there. Flavour of buns, coconut buns from the nearby baker that once adorned the stale panelled show case still seem to waft through. During these days of lock down, we pause, to remember every little thing that was part of growing up.
Loved ones from my village tell me that they miss their regular dose of fish curry and together we reminisce. Calls of fishwives that resonated through the streets ring in our heads. Few of them I knew for decades boasted a loud and coarse-mannered exterior. One thing I was absolutely certain was that thou their entire families worked hard to bring freshly-caught fishes from the sea to houses not to mention the long distances they walked with the weight of the basket on their heads, they made meagre profit. Casual conversations with them as they helped us clean the fishes we bought revealed their tenderness and how they cared for their large families whilst their husbands were at sea for long periods of time. Needless to say, goli sodas or buttermilk from the corner stores rejuvenated them.
With globalization, those who really couldn’t become smarter or more professional retailers stood behind the counter hoping that we would cross their doorstop. Sadly, countless drove far away to shop full-time at hypermarkets, symbols of modernity. Due to the present circumstances, when we go back to corner stores that have managed to hang on, we step back in time with our children and replicate experiences worth a life-time. The death of a bourgeois mentality such as, ‘when I want it, I get it’ is definitely in the reckoning as the virus caught us, the intelligent community by surprise and dread. A paradigm shift in our day-to-day life is forced on us, whether we like it or not. For once, deserted corner stores visibly symbolise a neighbourhood in decline.
And, how many of us know that the German term for groceries ‘is Lebensmittel’ means ‘to sustain life’!
Dr. Elsa Lycias Joel & Dr. Daniel Devaprasath Jeyasekharan